Why Middle Managers Are Secretly the Superheroes of the Workplace

New research shows how big of an impact middle management has on retention and employee well-being.

learn more about David Niu

By David Niu • Aug 23, 2016

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What comes to mind when you think of the term "middle manager?" Is it someone who has little power, spends a lot of time micro-managing people and whose career is in a rut?

We wouldn't blame you for thinking that. In popular culture, middle managers get a bad rap. From "Office Space" to "The Office," the middle manager is often hapless, mocked by his employees and bullied by executives.

There are close to 11 million people in the U.S. working in a non-executive "middle" management role, according to the Wall Street Journal (compared to about 238,000 executive leaders, according to the Department of Labor). All those mid-level leaders are extremely important because they are directly responsible for the success of employees doing everything from writing magazine articles to designing jetliners. They have real leverage when it comes to inspiring success.

Related: 4 Steps to a Better Management Technique

Over the past few years, we've noticed many middle-level leaders coming to TINYpulse seeking a way to improve the morale and engagement of their direct reports. In new research we just released, we sought to find if there was a larger trend at play. What we found highlights that middle-level managers are, particularly in terms of employee retention and professional growth, basically workplace superheroes -- a notion that would surely brighten Michael Scott's day.

The middle manager's role.

Our first task was to estimate how many middle-managers are leading employee engagement efforts. To create a benchmark, we looked at how many middle managers use TINYpulse. We found that middle managers own about 20 percent of accounts. This estimate excludes anyone working in HR or specific talent management roles.

We also commissioned an independent poll of 502 U.S. and found that 70 percent said that their direct manager had taken steps to implement an employee engagement strategy at work. Of the remaining 30 percent, a majority reported that they would prefer a manager handle employee engagement rather than someone in HR or at the executive level.

Related: If You Want to Lead, You Also Need to Manage

The employees in the "yes" group told us that the most common employee engagement tactics their manager uses are employee recognition, asking for feedback and career training. Of the 30 percent who answered "no," the biggest problems they have at work are pay and benefits, communication problems with their manager and low recognition.

How middle managers reduce attrition.

We also looked at employee responses to TINYpulse employee satisfaction surveys to see whether the middle managers who are leading employee engagement actually have a positive impact on their employees.

The biggest superpower we found: middle managers have a superhuman ability to shrink attrition. On the question, "How likely would you be to leave for a 10 percent raise?" employees whose direct managers are responsible for engagement were 20 percent less likely to quit for that much of a pay bump.

Other key indicators reported by employees whose managers lead employee engagement strategies include: they have higher levels of work-life balance, have a stronger perception of their ability to grow in their careers, and are more likely to say that their company takes their feedback seriously and responds with action.

Nevertheless, it's not just our research that demonstrates the importance of managers. In separate research, Limeade, a corporate wellness technology company, found that managerial support was more crucial than C-level support for employee well-being efforts.

The middle manager's future.

Managers already have considerable control over employee engagement efforts. We don't see any reason for this trend not to continue, especially with the number of middle managers working in the U.S. and around the world (The Economist reported in 2011 that Lloyd's Banking Group would layoff 15,000 middle managers -- which begs the question how many they had in total).

Related: 4 Ways to Make Middle Managers Better Leaders

Companies invested in employee engagement should, however, consider the role managers play. One issue that we've seen is managerial efforts colliding with company-wide initiatives. To avoid this, adopt "common language" across the company, which allows both managers and executives to be responsible for employee engagement under a company-wide umbrella.

While the impact of managers on employee engagement efforts merits further study, one thing is certain: Managers are surpassing stereotypes. They're involved in decision-making; they're deeply connected with their employees, and they're unsung superheroes in the workplace.

David Niu

CEO of TINYpulse

David Niu is a Seattle-based serial entrepreneur and founder of TINYpulse. Previously, he was co-founder of BuddyTV and NetConversions. He is the author of "Careercation: Trading Briefcase For Suitcase to Find Entrepreneurial Happiness."

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